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Courthouses in urgent need

News

Cite as: April 2012 86 (04) LIJ, p.16

Chief Magistrate Ian Gray calls for infrastructure investment.

Chief Magistrate Ian Gray has called on the state government to increase capital investment for the state’s regional and suburban courthouses, saying Victoria’s magistrates and court users should no longer have to dispense 21st century justice in 19th century buildings.

Mr Gray said many of the state’s magistrates’ courts have “significant infrastructure, access and security issues”. He said some courthouses were “completely inadequate from a disability point of view”.

He fears that some facilities can no longer handle the growing number of cases coming before the courts.

Mr Gray also said the government had in many cases failed to ensure disabled public access and other devices aimed at increasing court access for the disabled, such as hearing loops and disabled toilets, were added to courthouses.

He said while there were some “very good” new courts, such as those in Wodonga, Mildura, Warrnambool and the Latrobe Valley, some older buildings “have languished”.

“There has generally been a massive under-investment in court buildings across Victoria,” Mr Gray said.

“There are a number of older court buildings with real problems, including disability access. The older buildings, some built in the 1800s, were not designed to accommodate modern devices and some have languished.

“Bendigo, Wangaratta, Shepparton and Werribee in particular are highly problematic.

“Wodonga is under massive pressure as it is very crowded and unsatisfactory from a risk point of view.”

“The short point is that the court has been putting to government for some years the need to invest in infrastructure, including disability access, and that has not happened in some courts. Some are completely inadequate.”

There are almost 60 courthouses in Victoria. Of those, 19 were built in the 1800s, 18 between 1900 and 1975, 13 from 1976 to 2000 and four have opened since 2001.

Some older courthouses have been brought up to standard due to upgrades or extensions in recent years.

LIV president Michael Holcroft offered Mr Gray his wholehearted support and said LIV members were frustrated with standards of facilities, “from poor to great”, across the court system.

“The members do highlight these problems, and not only to us, but to the courts themselves and to government. There is a whole heap of awareness of the flaws on many different levels,” he said.

Mr Holcroft said securing extra capital investment for court infrastructure in the 2012 state budget was crucial.

He said the LIV has underlined problems with court facilities to the state government. (See “Budget wishlist”, page 17.)

“They have got some really serious issues in courthouses, particularly in regional areas, including disability access, limited security and aspects of trial support.

“We also see that further pressures and workloads will be placed on our courts. Some are struggling to cope now and are in urgent need of maintenance. If you support law and order you have to support the courts.”

Mr Gray said some suburban courts were also a problem. “In particular Werribee, which is part of the growth corridor, has severe problems and is totally inadequate for a very busy courthouse.”

On 20 February, The Age newspaper reported that the state’s most senior judges demanded extra funding to fix what they saw as a stressed and dilapidated justice edifice and some court buildings as “basket cases”.

In the article, Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Warren renewed calls for a modern Supreme Court building. She said the current building was “quite frightening” for victims and witnesses in cases, that it did not have the “appropriate environment” for the Kilmore East bushfire class action, scheduled to be heard later this year, and not always enough courtrooms for the number of sitting judges.

County Court Chief Judge Michael Rozenes said he did not have enough judges to deal with increased workloads and that the Shepparton and Wangaratta courthouses “have been basket cases for a long, long time”.

A spokesperson for Attorney-General Robert Clark said the Coalition was “very aware of the badly neglected state of several regional courts inherited from the previous Labor government.”

“The Coalition committed $200,000 prior to the election for a study of the situation at the Shepparton Court to determine whether to renovate or rebuild the court. That work is well advanced,” he said. “Works are also being planned to tackle the problems at Wangaratta Court that have been raised by police.”

For information on the LIV Disability Action Plan, see http://tinyurl.com/7soqukb.

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